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250 Meals on Wheels roll out daily

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Nobuko Oyabu

Jesse Lopez of Project NOW carries two packages of hot meals for the Meals on Wheels program in Rock Island County. The agency serves more than 250 people daily.

A lot of humanity has passed before Cork Steen in the five years he's been coordinating home delivery for Project NOW's Meals on Wheels program.

The hot-meal program for homebound people living in Rock Island County reaches more than 250 people daily.

``Often we're the only contact with the outside world many of these people have,'' Mr. Steen said. ``There's been more than one time we have found someone on the floor who fell and couldn't get up. In some cases, they've lain there all weekend.

``We watch our people very closely,'' he said. ``If we call them and don't get a response, we'll drive out to see if they're all right.''

The home-delivered meals are a means of helping homebound people stay independent, Mr. Steen said.

``These are all people who would otherwise be in nursing homes, I have no doubt of that,'' he said. ``The savings to the state and federal government is enormous. This is probably some of the best government money spent. And it all goes exactly where it's supposed to go.''

Meals on Wheels is supported by the Western Illinois Area Agency on Aging, client donations, and fundraising. The client donations, $2.50 per meal, are accepted on a can-do basis.

``We'll accept a $2.50 donation, but no one is ever denied a meal because they couldn't pay,'' said Grace Rubacaba, director of the Meals on Wheels program. ``We'll take anyone who is homebound in the program. It doesn't matter what their background is.''

Coordinating pickup and delivery of all the meals is a herculean task, Mr. Steen said. ``Finding enough volunteers to help make deliveries -- as many as eight routes are needed every day -- is the most difficult part of running this program,'' he said. ``Once people begin to volunteer, however, they get very attached. You learn quickly you can really make a difference in someone's life.''

Client referrals to the Meals on Wheels program come from Homemakers, the Visiting Nurses Association, Alternatives for the Older Adult, doctors, hospitals and family members.

``Many of our volunteers are family members of homebound people who are part of the program,'' Mr. Steen said. ``They see firsthand what a difference it makes in their own relative's life, and they want to support the program through volunteering.''

The Meals on Wheels program, under the umbrella of Project NOW, delivers an average of 250 hot meals per day, Monday through Friday. ``That's an average -- sometimes it goes as high as 325 meals on a single day,'' he said. ``We could easily make it 400 a day if we have the volunteers to help deliver.''

The Meals on Wheels goal for 1998 is a total of 69,365 meals delivered.

A recent grant from the Victor and Doris Day Foundation has provided the necessary funds to supply sack lunches to those who need them over the weekend. Beginning Oct. 27, an average of 150 sack lunches have been delivered each Friday.

Aramark Vending and Food Service, Moline, creates and executes the monthly menus that include such comfort fare as meatloaf and mashed potatoes, baked chicken, ham and beans, and Salisbury steak.

The sack lunches contain a sandwich, container of fresh fruit, vegetables, a dessert such as Jell-O, and milk. Each hot meal and sack lunch is designed to include one-third of the daily nutritional requirements for the average adult.

``Aramark does a fantastic job and will work with people on special diets. We have no problem with the meals. We do have a shortage finding volunteers to help with delivery.''

Currently, there are more than 3,000 people in Chicago waiting to get on a similar meal program. ``We have about a 10-day waiting list, but it doesn't take long for us to add new people,'' Ms. Rubacaba said. ``We're one of the few programs in the state that doesn't have a waiting list. We're very lucky.''

The hot-meal program for homebound people began several years ago.

``It all started with St. Anthony's Hospital's Ladies Auxiliary, who would cook up and deliver hot food to homebound people. It was then assumed by the Visiting Nurses Association, and in 1993 it was taken over by Project NOW,'' she said.

When a holiday rolls around, another group of volunteers takes up the mantle of preparing and delivering meals. Holiday Meals on Wheels, coordinated by Ceil Payne, Rock Island, delivers hot meals on every holiday of the year.

``All the holiday meals are prepared on site by volunteers at the Project NOW Senior Center, while other volunteers do the actual delivery,'' Mr. Steen said.

For more information about the program or to become a volunteer, call 788-6335.

-- By Lisa Mohr (February 9, 1998)

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